More Astros prospect rankings (with some philosophizing, too)

I'm not a prospecter.  I enjoy listening to those who are knowledgeable about the business of evaluating and prognosticating about a prospect's future, but I, myself, have never had the desire to role up my selves and dig into the business.  I have a tremendous amount of respect for old school scouting, but as an analytically inclined fan of baseball, their trade has always felt too mushy.  Not that it isn't incredibly valuable, it just doesn't speak to me the way the statistical revolution in baseball has.

With the advent of the youtube, MiLB TV, and a smorgasbord of prospect websites, there are a plethora of insights, conjectures, and theories about swing technique, pitching motion, and everything in between.  We have even discussed the possibility of such avenues allowing for fans to provide the same quality of information that old school scouts do.  None of this, however, has the air of certainty that the continual refinement of measuring player's production has reached at the major league level.

Why the philosophizing? Well, this weekend I received a copy of Diamond Future's Prospect eGuide.  I had never heard of them before and I'm sad that I had not.  After burning through my standard four cups of coffee (four cups is standard, there's an additional cup before lunch, and then a cup after lunch as well) Sunday morning, I popped open the pdf and got to reading.  The introduction served as both an apology to the scouting community, but also as a primer for what I can best describe as a PECOTA-esque engine for prospects.

Their methodology and end measures are phenomenal.  The typical 20-80 scale has be fit to a bell curve, with a score at either end representing a distance of three standard deviations.  Based on a prospect's scores amongst the various skill components that Diamond Future tracks, compatible matches are found across a pool of 12,000+ players, ranked, and career then trajectories modeled.  Grades are then doled out to players based on percentage odds at achieving both a MLB career and also the likelihood of reaching elite status at their position (graded on an A-C scale).  It is an exact science full of margins of error, but the approach speaks to me nonetheless.

It speaks to me for a few reasons. Mostly because the end results are not acronyms, they're numbers that people already understand.

Recently, Will Carroll started a flurry of discussion in a BPro Unfiltered piece about how the broader message of sabermetric inquiry can be transmitted in a way that the average fan can understand and utilize without having to spend several days reading through archives of websites, pouring over formulas, and understanding the meaning of correlation coefficients. He asked for a gateway drug.*  I don't want to suggest that Diamond Guide's work is that gateway drug; rather that it is a step in the right direction.  I feel like the average fan could pick this book up, skip the first few pages of methodology, and read each and every player evaluation and understand what they were looking at with no assistance.  All they would need to know is that a score of 50 is average, and a score of 80 or 20 means that that player is in the extreme top or bottom of their position for that skill set.  That's pretty easy to orient, and it's in a familiar context.  Yet in spite of its simplicity, it brings about an understanding of player's skill sets that are very much the way that "stat heads" think about them.  There is something laud about that kind of result.

That is not all that the impresses me about the Diamond Guide, though.  Like I said, I'm not a prospector, but I think I've read, and reread every player evaluation for the Astros, and found that I have a far more nuanced understanding of our player's skill sets.  Much more so than I have gained on my own by pulling stats from Minor League Splits, comparing them with other players, etc.  Moreover, the fact that there is a projection engine, of sorts, built into the evaluation provides me a greater understanding of just how likely it is that Ross Seaton might be a MLB contributor, but I can also key in on exactly where he has to improve.  Or, I can discover player's I've previously overlooked (like Jose Altuve (a B- minus guy, whom I am now greatly, greatly enamored with).  The thread I'm trying to connect is that it can take two untapped groups of fans, stat-heads with a weariness for prospecting and casual fans who just want to know who is coming through the pipes, and both orient and inform then quickly and efficiently.

To me, that is impressive. But I'll quit fawning and get to some of the more interesting tidbits I gleaned from the Diamond Guide about the Astros.

The eGuide includes each team's organizational rankings that are based on the cumulative projected WAR of every prospect in system graded A to C. Thankfully, the Astros are ranked 29th with 98.6 WAR.  Last is reserved for the St. Louis Cardinals (97.8...or no real difference).  As nice as it is to see the Astros ranked not last, the difference between the bottom five teams is meaningless in the statistical sense.  A scant 5 WAR separate them, while the error bands for a cumulative projection of 30+ prospect's future, in some instances based on 250 PA or less, is wide...to put it mildly.  Although there is plenty of wiggle room in the rankings, the lack of differentiation between the vast majority of farm systems, using the Diamond Guide methodology, was fascinating to see.  While the Astros are considered to have a poor farm system, they are not significantly worse than say the Brewers, who are ranked 23rd with 106.4 WAR.

Flitting through the various prospects' grades from other farm systems,I what I managed to gather was the Astros are devoid of sexy prospects by comparison.  What they aren't devoid of is high floor/low ceiling guys, fringe contributors, and guys with measurable upside.  Given that the Astros are only two years into a full on rebuilding process—one that began after pretty much pressing reset—I am more impressed with Bobby Heck, and his team of scouts, than ever before.  That says a lot. I mean, I finished designing the "In Bobby Heck We Trust" shirt just before I read the eGuide.

Do I walk away from the prospect rankings overwhelmed by the players upon whom the Astros will be counting soon enough? Not really. But I'm confident in enough of them after seeing their skill set breakdowns.  I'll certainly be keeping tabs guys I found in the rankings, like Altuve, and checking back in on Diamond Guide regularly.  If you've got $10, I suggest picking up a copy.  It's a pretty enjoyable way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

*My suggestion for a gateway drug is the out, by the way.  The out was what got through to me first, so maybe I am biased. But the out is a universally understood concept across the spectrum of fans and is the corner stone for just about any advanced metric.  Why is OBP better than BA? It measures out production.  Why is ERA dumb? Because it makes the out irrelevant in accessing a pitcher in too many instances.  How do you start explaining BABIP? Outs. K:BB ratio? Outs to freebies? Leverage? The importance of outs in terms of their similarity to a play clock. It could go on, but I think that sabermetrics is easily processed by starting off with the out as it is a pretty innocuous way to bring someone down the rabbit hole.

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